Who’s the top three-year-old now?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

May 22nd, 2017

Considering the topsy-turvy ride throughout the 2017 Triple Crown trail, I guess it was too much to ask for clarity arising from Saturday’s Preakness (G1).

For the first mile of the Pimlico classic, we had the match race we wanted: Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming versus last year’s champion two-year-old colt Classic Empire, duking it out for the title. No hard-luck stories, no adverse conditions, just an old fashioned, eyeball-to-eyeball duel, and may the better horse win.

To my eye, Classic Empire always appeared to be going the better of the two. This was his preferred trip on paper – comfortable on the outside, pressing front runner Always Dreaming on the rail. And it certainly showed entering the far turn, when John Velazquez on Always Dreaming cast an anxious glance over at Julien Leparoux sitting with a handful of Classic Empire. If you didn’t already think the Derby winner might be in trouble, that was the giveaway.

When Classic Empire put Always Dreaming away and held a three-length lead in midstretch, there came the satisfaction of a clear-cut result. The champion didn’t have a fair shot on Derby Day, yet he acquitted himself honorably in fourth. Now on his way to sweet victory in the Preakness, Classic Empire was re-asserting himself as the top colt of his generation.

Although I was rooting for Classic Empire, I would have welcomed a clear-cut decision in favor of Always Dreaming as well. A Derby/Preakness double would have given us the undisputed divisional leader.

But this is 2017, so nothing can be that easy or straightforward.

For here came Cloud Computing – who’d only made it to the races in February, placed in a pair of New York preps, and skipped the Derby – to mug Classic Empire late. It was the dictionary definition of a tough beat.

Some critics pounced on Leparoux’s ride, but this was precisely the way he’d won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and posted his career-best 108 BRIS Speed rating. Classic Empire had forced the pace set by flame-throwing Syndergaard, took over, and never flinched when staving off favored Not This Time.

Moreover, was Leparoux supposed to concede a cozy lead to Always Dreaming? Had the expected pace factor Conquest Mo Money broken more sharply, and sprinted forward from the far outside post, maybe you could have let him do the dirty work. But he didn’t. No one could have reasonably forecast that Always Dreaming was going to throw in a clunker, and the early pressure from Classic Empire exposed the weaknesses he had on this particular day.

Of course, the pace was genuine, as you’d expect for two high-class Thoroughbreds trying not to give an edge to the other. But was Leparoux supposed to back off, allow Always Dreaming space for a breather, let him steal away, and then frantically ask Classic Empire when it was too late? Only with the benefit of hindsight could you know that Always Dreaming would sputter, and Classic Empire could swoop at a time of his own convenience. Leparoux didn’t have that luxury, but had to ride the race as it unfolded, second by second, and he had Classic Empire in the spot they’d wanted all along. And if he tried to hold Classic Empire longer, Cloud Computing would have had a smaller deficit to make up, and Leparoux would have been blamed for not seizing the chance to open up!

As agonizing as it was for Classic Empire to win the battle and lose the war, Cloud Computing deserves credit himself for running the champion down – in only his fourth career start. You could be tempted to say he had the garden trip sitting in third, until you realize that the others in proximity to that match race were spent and finished up the track.

Javier Castellano worked out a beautiful trip on Cloud Computing, but it’s because his mount had the ability to pull it off. Cloud Computing had the early foot to stalk the Derby winner and the champion, and enough left in reserve to finish best of all. The third- and fourth-placers, Senior Investment and Lookin at Lee, both came from the clouds to round out the exotics. And they were about five lengths behind.

I underestimated Cloud Computing here, not because I doubted his talent, but because of concerns about whether he was ready to put it all together, in a prize of this magnitude, at this point in his career. His remarkable debut win stamped him as one to follow, an impression corroborated by his runner-up effort in the Gotham (G3). He took a step backward in the Wood Memorial (G2), where he put himself in poor position with a slightly tardy start, made a middle move, and flattened out. I could forgive him that, and not take literally a seven-length loss to Irish War Cry.

Still, that left him as something of a work in progress. Co-owners Seth Klarman (aka Klaravich Stables) and Bill Lawrence, and trainer Chad Brown, rightly declined to send the raw prospect to the Derby. Other connections might have been too tempted, pressed ahead, and risked setting back his progress.

Discretion was the better part of valor indeed. Cloud Computing repaid their favor by taking a leap forward in the Preakness. He’s a serious three-year-old already, with the promise of more to come as he continues to gain in seasoning and maturity.

Just to add further piquancy, or snark, you could wonder whether Cloud Computing is Brown’s best sophomore. He also has unbeaten Peter Pan (G3) winner Timeline, who’s racked up lofty BRIS Speed figures of 109 and 104 in his last pair (granted, on sloppy tracks). He’s yet to meet a Preakness-quality field, of course, and has something to prove against a higher caliber of opponent. Yet Timeline is just one example of a lurker out there, yet to be tested in the Triple Crown, who could emerge as a force down the line. Remember that at this time last year, Arrogate hadn’t broken his maiden.

So the state of the division remains unsettled. Classic Empire, despite his travails, is the only one who can boast of a Grade 1 prep win backed up by valiant efforts in each of the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. If you want to play the parlor game of “name the pro tem division leader,” I think Classic Empire can put forward a strong case.

Regardless, that’s a pretty ephemeral debate – a snapshot in time, like a poll – because much will change as we dive into the summer and fall. The Belmont (G1) will contribute to this discussion, depending upon how many of the principals show up, and the Haskell Invitational (G1), Travers (G1), and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) will surely nudge the scales. And if the top three-year-old male also beats his elders in a major race, or finishes second to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), it would tie up every loose end into a pretty bow.

Yes, I know. “It’s not going to be that easy,” says 2017.

Preakness finish courtesy of Photos by Z